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COVID-19 cases are on the rise again. How will Anchorage’s new mayor respond?

Published: Jul. 28, 2021 at 7:44 PM AKDT|Updated: Jul. 29, 2021 at 2:31 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The delta variant is sparking a new wave of COVID-19 cases in Alaska, helping to push hospital capacity to the max and prompting questions about what the Municipality of Anchorage’s pandemic response will look like under a new administration.

As a candidate, Mayor Dave Bronson spoke out against mask mandates and emergency health orders that placed restrictions on businesses, said he would not be getting vaccinated and called into question the reality of the pandemic during a televised debate in April, stating, “This pandemic, if there was a pandemic, was over last summer.”

On his first day as mayor, after taking the oath of office, Bronson again reaffirmed his stance against some pandemic health measures, signaling a departure from the approach of the previous two administrations.

“We are not going to mandate masks,” he said on July 1, 2021.

During Tuesday night’s regular Anchorage Assembly meeting, assembly member Meg Zaletel questioned Bronson about his administration’s plans to address the rapidly-rising resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Anchorage.

“Could you please indicate what steps the municipality is going to take or if there’ll be any different, a different course of action related to COVID now that we’re in this high alert range and it appears that we are actually on an exponential uptick in cases, much like we were when we previously had a mask mandate and capacity restrictions?” Zaletel asked.

Bronson responded, “I’m briefed daily on the numbers. I’m well aware of them and I appreciate your review of them. As to the particulars, I will defer to Amy Demboski.”

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Municipal Manager Amy Demboski said the administration is reviewing a variety of options.

“This administration remains committed to addressing the response to COVID, the needs of our community,” she said. “There’s a variety of things that we’re looking at including establishing a rapid response-type strike team that can be mobile and be deployed to other areas of the community — maybe a neighborhood where there’s a school that has an outbreak — so we can be more readily accessible to all portions of our community.”

Demboski did not provide specific information on how the strike team would function and did not detail any planned, immediate actions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 through the community.

The public discussion during the meeting followed an urgent warning from hospital administrators from across the state this week outlining a shortage of available critical care beds, inadequate staffing and a burned out workforce.

“The bottom line is that our hospital is already very busy with sick Alaskans,” said Alaska Regional Hospital CEO Jennifer Opsut. “If this trend of increased COVID cases continues, we are concerned that our hospitals will become overwhelmed here in Anchorage.”

READ MORE: Administrators pleaded with Alaskans to get vaccinated as hospitals fill up

Bronson and Demboski declined to participate in interviews on Wednesday.

David Morgan, who Bronson tapped to serve as director of the Anchorage Health Department, agreed to an interview and said his team was working on a list of health recommendations to send to the mayor Wednesday.

“He does make the final decision ... all I can do is absolutely make sure that he has the best information possible,” said Morgan.

He urged community members to get vaccinated and spoke optimistically about the municipality’s ongoing COVID-19 response, despite the concerns voiced this week by hospital administrators.

“I’m sure the hospitals are trying to organize themselves and talk to themselves,” he said. “But the bottom line, beds that are staffed, we do have beds that are available.”

According to state’s COVID-19 data dashboard, there were 13 adult ICU beds available in Anchorage as of Tuesday, as well as 39 adult non-ICU beds.

When asked whether he believes the pandemic is still ongoing, Morgan avoided answering the question directly.

“I really can’t answer that,” he said. “I think it’s a it’s a definitional ... it’s a personal view kind of thing. I would not, we are not in a state of emergency, and that’s what I go by for. Pandemic is an adjective that describes a situation. What really, really sets the pace and sets the policy is, are we — have we declared this a state of emergency on the state level, on the national level, or on the local level? And we are not in a state of emergency as far as I know.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a pandemic as, “an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.”

This week, as COVID-19 infections are spiking across the globe and throughout the U.S., the CDC reversed previous guidance on masking, calling once again for even vaccinated individuals to wear masks in some settings, including in kindergarten through 12th-grade students in schools.

READ MORE: EXPLAINER: Why masks are again advised for everyone indoors

Morgan did not elaborate on what kind of measures or actions would be included in the health department’s recommendations to the mayor’s office.

“We need everybody, you know, government leaders, hospital leaders, cultural leaders, to all be giving the same message that this is very serious and we need people to get vaccinated and we need people to use all of the prevention that we now know,” said Dr. Janet Johnston, who worked as an epidemiologist for the Municipality until she resigned this week. “Like a year ago, you were trying to figure out what to do. Now we know what works. We know that masking and distancing and avoiding crowds works, and even more than that, getting vaccinated works. And now we just need everyone to put that message out there.”

Johnston has accepted a new job and submitted her resignation on Monday. She said she had hoped her last day would be on Aug. 4, but was told to resign effective immediately or be let go, an outcome she found to be disappointing.

“But the motivation to leave, you know, it’s my decision to leave,” she said. “I had decided I wanted to leave, I found a good job and I resigned.”

Johnston said the directives Bronson signed on his first day as mayor, in part, prompted the decision. One of the directives states that any remaining mask mandates in buildings that are owned, leased or used by the municipality are rescinded.

“It’s clear from the directives that the mayor signed on his first day that his approach and my approach to the pandemic are different ... it just seemed to me like it was probably not going to be the best fit,” Johnston said.

She said she hopes to see leadership from the municipality regarding the pandemic moving forward.

“I look at where our hospital numbers are compared to our case numbers, and hospitalizations are just going up really fast,” Johnston said. “We need more people vaccinated and we need people who aren’t vaccinated wearing masks all the time and you know, people who are vaccinated still being careful about wearing masks and really following the CDC guidance.”

Late Wednesday afternoon, a spokesperson with the mayor’s office said Bronson is planning to hold a media availability on Thursday to answer questions about his administration’s COVID-19 response.

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